The first result of careful thought is the classification of objects according to their common nature, and learning the meaning of those words called common nounsOpens in new window. The child arrives at this knowledge gradually, and for a time is inclined to call all men “father,” and if he happens to have become acquainted first with a horse, to call all quadrupeds “horse.” As knowledge increases, classification becomes more minute. Thus, man is divided into CaucasianOpens in new window, Malayan, African.

By an exercise of the same kind, the mind takes notice of the differences of individuals that can not be classified together, and of the similarieties of individuals in some respects, that are yet so different in other respects that they can not be classified together. When the attention is called to two objects that are both alike in some particular, and unlike in others, and the likeness is pointed out, a comparison is made.

What Is Comparison?

Comparison (also, parabola, parabole, similitude), is the likening of one object to another, from which it also differs in so many other qualities to which the attention is not directed, that it can not properly be said to belong to the same class.

Importance of Comparison

1.   Mechanism to convey information

The first object of comparisons is used as a mechanism to convey information. The following are examples:

  • “Aluminum is a metal with a lustre like that of silver and platinum.”
    →(This describes the appearance of aluminum to one who know the appearance of silver and platinum.)
  • “The soldiers stood like statues, unmoved by the cannons’ roar.”
    → (This simply describes the steady, unmoved position of the soldiers. Nearly all speakers whose object is to impart information make frequent use of comparisons.)

This figure of speech, as it is sometimes called, though in reality it is not a figure, but a simple statement of a similarity, is the most common of all modes of illustration, and every writer and speaker should study its nature and power.

We give a few specimens of illustrative comparisons, to show the beauty and impressiveness of this kind of illustration.

√  How sublime the thought in Derzhavin’s address to the Deity:

  • “Yes, in my spirit doth thy Spirit shine,
    As shines the sunbeam in a drop of dew.”

√   It will be observed that comparisons are often made without the use of such terms as like, so, as, or any other terms to call attention to them as comparisons. It is easy, however, to see that a comparison of two or more objects is made.

  • “Before the curing of a strong disease,
    Even in the instance of repair and health,
    The fit is strongest; *** Evils that take leave,
    On their departure most of all show evil.”
  • “As seeds lie dormant in the earth for hundreds of years, and then when brought to the influence of air and light, exhibit their vitality, so the germ of the soul may lie concealed and undeveloped during the whole term of human life.”
  • “The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him and leads him whithersoever it will.”

√   Sometimes it is necessary to explain to some extent the nature of the object with which the comparison is made. The following from Rev. Dr. Caird is impressive, but expressed in too many words:

  • “Just as in winter the cold may become so intense as to freeze the thermometer, and thereby to leave you without the means of marketing the subsequent increases of cold, so there is a point in the lowered temperature of the inward consciousness where the growing coldness, hardness, selfishness of a man’s nature can no longer be noted — the mechanism by which moral variations are indicated becoming itself insensible and motionless.”

√   The following from Macaulay, in a plea for thorough study, is a comparison which required to be preceded by an explanation, the interest of which justifies its length:

  • “Rumford, it is said, proposed to the Elector of Bavaria a scheme for feeding his soldiers at a much cheaper rate than formerly. His plan was simply to compel them to masticate their food thoroughly. A small quantity thus eaten would, according to that famous projector, afford more sustenance than a large meal hastily devoured. I do not know how Rumford’s proposition was received; but to the mind, I believe, it will be found more nutritious to digest a page than to devour a volume.”

√   Comparisons between objects entirely different in their nature often please the mind and aid the memory, as in the instance:

  • “There is something grateful in any positive opinion, though in many points wrong, as even weeds are useful that grow on a bank of sand.”

2.  Elevating Comparisons, and the Opposite

Comparisons are also used to elevate our estimation of an object, or to degrade it.

√   Byron, describing Henry Kirke White as losing his life by excessive study, uses a comparison that gives an exalted conception of his character:

  • “Oh, what a noble heart was here undone,
    When Science’ self destroyed her favorite son!
    ’Twas thine own genius gave the final blow,
    And helped to plant the wound that laid thee low.
    So the struck eagle, stretched upon the plain,
    No more through rolling clouds to soar again,
    Viewed his own feather on the fatal dart,
    Which winged the shaft that quivered in his heart:
    Keen were his pangs, but keener far to feel,
    He nursed the pinion which impelled the steel;
    While the same plumage that had warmed his nest
    Drunk the last life-drop of his bleeding breast.”

√   Pope, wishing to undervalue man’s power to understand God or his works, wrote:

  • “Superior beings, when of late they saw
    A mortal man unfold all nature’s law,
    Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
    And showed a Newton as we show an ape.

√   Comparisons used to degrade are a very efficient weapon with which to attack error and folly.

  • “X – would be a powerful preacher if he did not drown his thought in a Ded Sea of words. You don’t want a drove of oxen to drag a cart-load of potatoes on a smooth road.”
  • “Skepticism in an honest and thoughtful young man is like the chicken-pox – very apt to come, but not dangerous, and soon over, leaving both complexion and constitution as good as ever.”
  • “To consort with such company is like playing with pitch; defilement is sure to follow.”

3.  Comparisons Designed Simply to Interest

Comparisons are used simply to interest and please. See examples below:

√   Comparisons enliven sober composition, and render impressive and pleasing truth that is already understood an which will not be denied. Sir William Jones said:

  • “Ignorance is to the mind what extreme darkness is to the nerves: both cause an uneasy sensation; and we naturally love knowledge a we love light, even when we have no design of applying either to a purpose essentially useful.”

√   Prescott says:

  • “The ocean, stretched between us and the Old World, has the effect of time, and extinguishes, or at least cools, hot and angry felings.”
  • Such comparisons interest, though they may not instruct. This is related to WitOpens in new window and AntithesisOpens in new window.

4.  Argumentative Comparisons

Comparisons are among the most efficient weapons in the armory of the debater. Scarcely ever does one find himself earnestly attempting to prove a proposition, without bringing to his aid illustrations either to produce conviction or to show more impressively his own meaning. Thus Froude, in his “History of England,” makes abundant use of this figure.

√   We give a single example from him of a comparison dwelt upon and amplified:

  • “There are many scenes in human life which, as a great poet teaches us, are either sad or beautiful, cheerless or refreshing, according to the direction from which we approach them. If, on a morning in spring, we behold the ridges of a fresh-turned plowed field from their northen side, our eyes, catching only the shadowed slopes of the successive furrows, see an expanse of white, the unmelted remains of the night’s hailstorm or the hoar-frost of the dawn. We make a circuit, or we cross over and look behind us, and on the very same ground there is nothing to be seen but the rich brown soil swelling in the sunshine, warm with promise, and checkered perhaps here and there with a green blade bursting through the surface. Both images are true to the facts of nature. Both pictures are created by real objects really existing. The pleasant certainty, hwoever, remains with us, that the winter is passing away and summer is coming; the promise of the future is not with the ice and the sleet, but with the sunshine, with glaness and hope.”

Directions for using Comparisons

It would be easy to gather many faulty comparisons to warn the student against prevalent errors. Let the following directions be observed:

1.  The objects compared must be alike in some respects and different in many others, and the greater both the likeness and difference are, the more pleasing will the comparison be. Let it be said that “Napoleon, like Caesar, was a great conqueror,” and the mind is not pleased. Napoleon and Caesar were too nearly alike – both generals, both emperors, both conquerors. But let it be said Florence Nightingale, like Caesar, was a great conqueror; he conquered nations, she prejudices an apathy; he sacrificed, and she saved the lives of thousands, and the propriety of the comparison is at once seen.

2.  The objects with which the comparison is made must be well known, and if any explanation is needed, it must not be so long, or so interesting, as to divert the mind from the principal purpose of the author. When the likeness is remote, and requires a great deal of study to be perceived, it is said to be far-fetched, and must be very instructive or pleasing, or it will be condemned.

The following from Jean Paul Richter, like many others by the same author, are far-fetched, and yet their impressiveness when understood makes them pleasing and allowable:

  • “Life, like the olive, is a bitter fruit; then grasp both with the press, and they will afford the sweetest oil.
    Does the heaven of our existence, like the blue one over our heads, consist of mere empty air, which, when near to, and in little, is only a transparent nothing, and which only in the distance and in grasp becomes blue ether?”

3.  Comparisons must be elevating or degrading, according to their purpose, whether it be to honor or debase. The following from Horace Greelwy utters a degree of contempt for the charge which it repels:

  • “None of them regarded the right of a State to secede from the Union as more defensible than the right of a stave to secede from the cask which it helps to form.”

4.  Comparisons should not be so frequent as to weary the mind; for, like all other good things, they may be superabundance become deformities.

5.  Comparisons should not be made simply from habit, where they add neither information nor impressiveness to what has already been said, or may be better said, without them.

Common as this figure of speech is, it is not a little remarkable that many eminent authors have made no use of it whatever. In the celebrated oration of Demosthenes upon the Crown, the only well-marked simileOpens in new window is the following:

  • “Like a winter storm, this whole affair came down upon the city.”
Adapted from Erastus Otis Haven's, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and for Private Study. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square, (1871). PersonificationOpens in new window